Ernie and Joe are not your everyday policemen—the kind that any of us usually conjure when we imagine officers on the scene; they are part of the San Antonio Police Department’s (SAPD’s) highly progressive and successful Mental Health Unit, which was founded in 2008.
They respond to and engage with those in crisis—whether they are self-harming, threatening suicide, experiencing PTSD symptoms or homeless—and are trained to intervene without force, before and if any arrests are made. On the job, they look differently, wearing plain clothes, concealing their weapons, and traveling in unmarked cars. In the course of their police work, they act differently, too, emphasizing de-escalation, rapport-building, and empathy.
Ernie & Joe will follow these two skilled officers on the job as they negotiate—one unpredictable 911 call at a time—from squad car, to the scene, to follow-up care. Watching them help someone experiencing a psychiatric emergency, we will witness firsthand an innovative way to police, serve the mentally ill, and help families in need. Very often the situations they confront are life and death, involving the weapons, violence and unpredictability that they confronted in their prior days on patrol. And yet, these two officers have come to see their public service in a whole other way. “What I truly feel in my heart now,” says Joe after five years with the Mental Health Unit, “Is that mental health and crisis intervention is the future of police work in this country.”
In the United States, it’s time for law enforcement to take a close look at its handling of encounters with the mentally ill. Alarmingly, one in four people shot by a police officer—25% of such shootings— has a serious mental illness. For those lucky enough to dodge a police bullet, the numbers aren’t much better. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national organization committed to the fair and just treatment of the mentally ill, almost 25% of jail inmates and 15% of state prison inmates have a serious mental illness. At this very moment—and this is a documented fact—more people suffering from mental illness are in jail or prison than are in state mental hospitals. This is an issue in every community, jail and prison across the country, and it is in many cases inefficient, ineffective and inhumane.
These numbers reflect a very disturbing reality: with a failing mental health system so inadequate, police officers have increasingly become de facto first responders to people experiencing a mental health crisis, despite the fact that they are often grossly unprepared for the task. According to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy non-profit, new recruits today typically receive 60 hours of training to learn how to handle a gun, but only eight hours of training to learn strategies for handling the mentally ill. This survey is only bolstered by reports from police departments across the country that despite officers’ experiencing at least one mental-health crises a day, they have few effective tools for dealing with them.
Part buddy film, part social commentary, and vérité in its approach, Ernie & Joe will take the viewer on a personal journey, weaving together the experiences of these two officers with their daily encounters with people in crisis. Ernie and Joe have engaging personalities, making it easy to spend time with them in their world.